Interview: James Currey on publishing African Literature

                                                                                    [Photo: Kuukuwa Manful/Africa Oxford Initiative]

In this episode of our interview series, our host Lynda Iroulo talks to James Currey, co-founder of the Oxford-based James Currey Publishers and, together with Nigerian poet Chinua Achebe, creator of the African Writers Series launched in 1962.

Listen in, as Currey gives insight into his first steps in the publishing business and contemporary African literature, and why he doesn’t intend to stop what he is doing any time soon.

Find an abridged transcription of the interview below or listen to the full one here:

Lynda: Today we have James Currey with us. He is co-founder of the Oxford-based James Currey Publishers, who previously worked for Heinemann Educational Books and Oxford University Press. Together with Chinua Achebe, under the auspices of Heinemann Publishers, he produced the African Writers Series, a series of books by African writers, in 1962. Let’s get to know you. How long have you been in the publishing business?

James: All my adult life. I started off in South Africa and the more frustrated I became about apartheid, the more interested I got in Africa to the North, where everybody was becoming independent.

Lynda: And what influenced you to go into publishing? I read that one of your parents was a poet and the other a playwright. Did they not want you to follow their steps and do what they did?

James: Well, yes. Growing up, I was used to seeing authors in my parents’ house. They always were professionally involved, as you said, and in fact I think they felt that really the most superior thing was writing. My brother was quite good at writing, but I was less good and got interested in publishing because it seemed to be a very self-indulgent profession where you could enjoy other people’s work and writing, and you could share their excitement and their sadness.

Lynda: I can imagine you’ve read more than a thousand books. What books have caught your interest and sparked something special in you?

James: What books? Well, the problem as a publisher is that you skim-read, and in recent years I’ve really made myself read the whole book rather than just go ahead and get it finished. When you ask me about the most recent book I’ve been reading, I think I bought Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when it came out in 2013. I’ve been reading that book with particular fascination because of all these extraordinary complications of people coming into other people’s countries and legal ways of staying and so on and so forth. That’s very much uppermost in my mind at the moment.

Lynda: So why did you feel it was important to focus on publishing African literature?

James: Well, publishing is a matter of taking advantages and getting a feeling of the way things are going and what chances there are. To me, it was terribly exciting that I had grown up with this literary background. I was used to people writing books and novels, women as well as men, so it was just marvelous to be able to encourage people. The thing was that once we had started putting out these books with the orange covers and the photograph on the back, people said “Good lord, I can get published!” and they were getting encouraged. When the flood gates were opened there was this enormous rush of manuscripts, and Chinua Achebe, me, and our colleagues were just responding to this enormous surge of self-confidence in independent Africa.

Lynda: So far, do you think there is still more to be published and more to be written about Africa?

James: The thing is that there already was quite a lot of publishing going on, but now, it has absolutely taken off. Going back to Americanah, one of the biggest moves has been into the diaspora—the US, Europe, and so on. But the problem still within Africa is trade between the individual countries. It’s not easy to get books published in Nigeria in Nairobi. But modern technology is helping, and publishing has taken off in Africa enormously; and it’s riddled excitement in me.

Lynda: One question I would like to ask as a PhD student is that we are passionate about the research we do, but at the same time we are afraid that these manuscripts will end up somewhere in the bookshelf in libraries without being read by anyone. As someone who has been in this business for a long time, what would be your advice to PhD students for moving from having a thesis to a book?

James: We sometimes have published doctorates unchanged, but fairly rarely. When you approach a publisher about your work, always say: “Look, I know you have a lot of work and if you are not able to accept this book, could you suggest other publishers who might help?” I remember that one time, I was at a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and people suddenly started asking us about books on conflict resolution. Actually it turned out we had done quite a lot of books on conflict resolution, but the important thing is not to say “Oh, they’ve done books on conflict resolution, they won’t be interested in mine.” As far as I’m concerned it’s often very worthwhile and productive to publish clusters of books on something like conflict resolution.

Lynda: Right now people are kind of skeptical that books may go nonexistent because scholars tend to read the shorter ones like articles in journals, and not books. Do you think that may be a challenge in the future?

James: Definitely a challenge already I think. I think fiction is in considerable difficulty. But staying with academic books, the market seems to have held up quite comfortably in recent years, even though things tend to change rather quickly. Our new owners just want us to publish more, for example. They say that we are not publishing enough books (laughs). So that’s good news for authors.

Lynda: You have been in this business for a long time. Do you have any plans of retiring?

James: Certainly not (laughs). I am very much interested in family history. I have just heavily edited a biography of my grandfather, who in 1964 published six children’s books, which came in the last year with New York Review of Books and are still selling fifty years afterwards. So I am doing that biography. Then I had a very exciting time in South Africa from 1959 to 1964. It was the time of the Sharpeville massacre and when Nelson Mandela was sent off to Robben Island. It was absolutely phenomenal and I was quickly involved in resistance politics. I’ve found all my letters from that period. I’m afraid when I am sitting in conferences, sometimes my mind goes back to the thought “I wish I was out editing my letters and my wife’s letters from South Africa.”

Lynda: Interesting. So we heard from Mr. Currey that researchers shouldn’t give up and we should take our research as a seed that is going to bloom into a flower, and he’s not going anywhere. It was a pleasure talking to you!

James: Pleasure talking to you, thank you very much.

Lynda: Thank you.

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